by Tim Baker.
‘Words create new worlds’ is a fabulous four-word mantra often attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel. You can see that truth in Genesis 1: God speaks and worlds are created. This story is echoed at the beginning Tolkien’s Silmarillion – as the music gives birth to a cosmos – and in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia as creation is sung into being, and in many mythologies around the world. As words are spoken and sung, as poetry is recited and performed, new creations happen, and the heart of the divine is revealed.
I’ve been a lover of the dance and the mystery of poetry for as long as I can remember, and this love has fuelled and inspired my relationship with the divine. The history of poetry is littered with attempts to grasp at something of God’s nature, to seek to describe the Spirit of God. I’m thinking of the ‘dim and undetermined sense of unknown modes of being’ in Wordsworth’s The Prelude; of Shelley’s ‘everlasting universe of things’ that ‘flows through the mind’; of Christina Rossetti’s imagery, of reams of T. S. Eliot, snatches of Maya Angelou… All seeking to use the tools of their craft to describe something ethereal, perhaps even the very nature of God.
The apophatic tradition (sometimes called the ‘via negativa’) has suggested that we cannot say anything about God (i.e. it is not possible to say what or who God is, only describe what God is not). I wonder if the poetic tradition can help us build on the apophatics and argue that whilst you can’t say anything definitive about God, you absolutely can write poems about the divine. Because, in poems, meaning is slippery. Poetry allows words to collide, to clash, to contradict and the definitive eludes us. Poems are littered with oxymorons and ambiguity – and it’s this hermeneutical uncertainty that takes writer and reader alike closer to the mysterious heart of God. If you haven’t any idea what I’m talking about, read almost anything by Padraig O’ Tuama and you’ll see what I’m trying to say.
I love poems because they grapple with the spiritual, because they have ambiguity at their heart and – finally – because of the sense of ‘play’. Poems are essentially a game we can play with words. When we dip into the canon, or we stumble across a hidden gem (as I did with the wonderful Grenadian poet, Merle Collins, 10 years ago and now her collections are scattered all over my shelves), we get to listen in and watch along with those who have attained mastery of language as they play with their toys.
You don’t have to be a poet to seek after the nature of God, but I believe that the world of poetry is trying to teach us to appreciate:
Dancing over dogmatics,
Metaphor over meetings,
Essence over ecclesiology,
Ambiguity over absolute certainty, and
Poems over power.
Perhaps our worship, our discipleship, our evangelism – and certainly our church meetings – would be richer, and more in tune with the divine, if we could learn to dance like the poets.